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Jonah and the Great Strom

Forget whales and such, this is about confronting the storms of life.

Threatened by a hurricane, as a precaution I sailed my small boat from its normal mooring in the lower Hudson to safer waters up river one beautiful day in September. It was a sunny day with a cooling breeze from the north and water sparkling and blue, the kind of day that makes you want to sail on, forever. But with the winds of a hurricane scheduled to arrive within 48 hours, even with sunlight and blue sky that seemed to stretch on without end, my thoughts turned to the storm.

If you've ever actually encountered the full force of a hurricane, you'll undertand that for ancient people, such storms connote more than just a force of nature. They bespeak of the undoing of creation itself and a return to the chaos that prevailed before the cosmos emerged from "the deep." There are many storm stories in the Bible. One of them is the centerpiece of an entire book: Jonah, recounting the prophet's encounter with what the text refers to as a "great fish." (Note that the word "whale" nowhere appears in the text. Despite generation after generation of preaching and Sunday School teaching, it does not say Jonah was swallowed by a whale. Not that it would be any less remarkable or miraculous for Jonah to have been eaten and then regurgitated three days later, fully alive, by a great fish.)

In either case, a closer reading of the text clearly shows that this book is not about such fantastic events at all. The book of Jonah raises questions far more interesting and far more pertinent to our lives than whether it would be possible for a human being to survive such a surrealistic journey. The tip-off to the book's real meaning comes in the form of Jonah's prayer, which is actually a psalm. This remarkable passage of poetry is set like a jewel in the midst of the prose narrative involving the prophet and his adventure at sea. I repeat a few verses from the psalm here by way of illustration:

In my distress, O Lord, I called to you, and you answered me. From the deep in the world of the dead I called to you,  I cried for help and you heard me. You threw me down into the depths, to the very bottom of the sea, where the waters were all around me, and your mighty waves rolled over me.  I thought I had been banished from your presence and would never see your holy temple again. The water came over me and choked me; the sea covered me completely, the seaweed wrapped around my head. I went down to the very roots of the mountains, into the land whose gates lock shut forever. But you, O Lord my God, brought me back from the depths alive....

Not the sea monster, but separation from God. That was Jonah's real problem. And ours.

Here the central theme of the story becomes evident. Jonah's real problem -- one that all of us share, whether we've ever stepped on the deck of a ship or not -- is separation from God. In biblical thinking the sea refers not so much to any literal ocean, but rather to that primeval chaos: whatever it was that existed before God made this world and everything in it. In descending into the depths of the sea, "down to the very roots of the mountains," Noah has descended into that chaotic realm, to that time before time began, to that place before any place existed. Elsewhere it's referred to as "the land of deep darkness." In the twenty-third psalm, it's the "valley of the shadow of death." This is the state of mind in which doubt completely overwhelms faith, where one is alienated from the world itself, and from every living thing in it. 

This is the state that Christ himself passed through during those hours on the cross, and later during those three long days in the tomb. The Apostle's Creed refers to it as the "descent into hell." But the miracle is that in calling out to God, even from such a place and such a state of mind, God still found a way of responding. It happened for Jonah, it happened for Jesus, and it can happen for any one of us. However severe the storms of life appear, however deep the chasm of separation that has opened up between oneself and God, still, the same, creator God, who brought this whole world and everything in it into being in the first place, is perfectly capable of leading us back to the land of the living once again.

The book of Jonah, like every other great passage of scripture, is transparent. It allows us to see through the names, dates and places that occupy the surface of the story, and into those deeper truths that are its real concern.

In this particular storm story, as we look through the text, we see into the very heart of God, a God who is revealed not so much as a power mighty and dreadful, but as a loving, caring, creative presence who can transform even the terror of the storm into a peaceful calm.

The essential meaning and purpose of the text is rather completely lost when it is taken literally. When the reader is hung up on such questions as whether it would be possible for a human being to survive for three days in the belly of a fish, the Bible becomes meaningless. When the mind fixates upon such details at the surface, the text becomes opaque. Rather than leading one toward deeper insight into the nature of God; it leads rather into endless debate as to the historical accuracy of obscure stories from the distant past. And this is not what the Bible is about at all.

The Bible's central focus is the God in whom we live, and move and have our being this day and everyday. And keeping that theme in mind, reading the Bible can be an adventure more exciting than reading any novel, more relevant than any newspaper, and more pertinent to our very survival than any medical textbook ever written.

Storm Stories: More on finding those inner resources necessary for weathering the storms of life.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.